David Cronenberg had to convince Viggo Mortensen to star in Future Crimes
David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen met for the first time at the Cannes Film Festival in 2001 during a promotional evening for the Lord of the Rings, in which Mortensen played the role of Aragorn. It was a chance meeting that would lead to a two-decade collaboration spanning four films, but Mortensen doesn’t really remember it. “I was probably having a good time,” he says with a twinkle in his eye as I sit down with the actor and director in Cannes the day after the world premiere of their latest film together, Future Crimes.
Their collaboration really began when they worked together on A history of violence, a 2005 film in which Mortensen plays a man who defends his small-town restaurant from thieves. They reunited for the 2007s Eastern promises and 2011 A dangerous methodand now Future Crimesin which Mortensen plays Saul, a performance artist who has his organs removed by his partner (Lea Sedeoux) in front of the public. The film is set in the future, when people’s bodies have begun to change in dangerous ways, and technology – and a pain-free world – allows them to operate on themselves.
When they are together, the 79-year-old director and the 63-year-old actor have an easy relationship, full of witty feedback and thoughtful reflections on their collaboration. They told me why Mortensen feared playing Saul, how they’ve each changed over the years, and what might come next.
After four films and all these years, why is this partnership working so well?
David Cronenberg: It absolutely does not work.
Viggo Mortensen: Yes, we keep trying.
Cronenberg: We keep trying, we think maybe this time we will succeed.
Mortensen: This has got to be the worst experience.
Cronenberg: The worst experience of our life. [Laughs.] We don’t want to waste your time, but we have to keep it light.
It’s understandable. So tell me, once you realized you wanted Viggo to play, what was the first thing you said to him about this project?
Cronenberg: The first thing was that Viggo didn’t want to play the lead role. He wanted to play the cop because I think he felt more comfortable with it, knew what it was. Whereas the main role – it’s just me imagining it, we haven’t really discussed it – is strange, complex, rather passive, reactive.
Viggo: Very responsive.
Cronenberg: And maybe a little harder to play. So naturally that scared Viggo because he’s such a wimp.
Motensen: I actually thought about it like, I told you, and I read it and I thought it was a great movie in our history, I’d like to be kind of the bad guy . The guy running the sting operation. But then no, David said, “no, you should play the lead.”
Cronenberg: I harassed him. I reprimanded him. I called him and texted him. Harangued him until he finally agreed to play the lead role instead.
Mortensen: Ultimately, I liked it as an acting exercise because the basis of good acting is really good reaction. And this character reacts to what happens to his body, to his environment, to what his partner does – what they do together to his body. I also like that there are layers to the character that have to do with a very artistic thing, a human thing. He has an ego. He has vanity. He is jealous of other artists to some extent. There are many layers to it. I found that interesting. But it’s true that he reacts a lot more than most of the characters that I play, and that I have played. Even Sigmund Freud [in A Dangerous Method], he is aggressive in his intellectual and defensive manner. And Saul isn’t – he’s actually quite a loving and vulnerable person.